Character Roundtable: Combined forces

Brand, reputation, and behavior individually help shape consumer views. The alignment of all three, though, is increasingly differentiating entities.

Brand, reputation, and behavior individually help shape consumer views. The alignment of all three, though, is increasingly differentiating entities – a reality accentuated by industry leaders who joined Gideon Fidelzeid in New York for this Hill+Knowlton Strategies-hosted roundtable.

Barry Baum, CCO, Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center
Ginger Hardage, SVP of culture and communications, Southwest Airlines
Laura Kane, VP of corporate communications, Aflac
Timothy McClimon, VP of CSR at American Express and president of the American Express Foundation
Victoria Mills, MD of corporate partnerships, Environmental Defense Fund
Hayes Roth, CMO, Landor
Andy Weitz, US president and CEO, Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Trish Wheaton, CMO, Wunderman

What character means
Gideon Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How would you define a public-facing organization's   “character”?

Andy Weitz (Hill+Knowlton Strategies): Character lies at the intersection of brand, reputation, and behavior. Brand is what you say about yourself, reputation is how you are perceived, and behavior is how you actually act. The challenge today is that many organizations manage those things separately, which brings inconsistencies the public isn't really willing to stand for any longer.

If you boiled down what character means, a lot of people talk about values. Character is reflected in your values and how much you walk the walk. There are three drivers that help organizations manage character – product management, how people view your team, and social impact.

Laura Kane (Aflac): Character is really who you are. It drives and informs everything you do – and that comes back to authenticity.

Hayes Roth (Landor): Somebody once said, “Character is what you do when no one's looking.” We counsel clients that they can make all the promises they want, but if you don't live up to those, you aren't delivering. If you do live up to those, though, that defines who you are. We call it “brand persona,” but “character” is certainly a good word for it.

Victoria Mills (Environmental Defense Fund [EDF]): Character is revealed through action and the outwardly visible part of character is reputation. The internal aspects such as your values, beliefs, and intentions are annullable and ultimately irrelevant if they are not manifested in action. The companies that are really successful at this are the ones most aligned in their values and their behavior.

Barry Baum (Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center): Trust, consistency, and transparency are the traits that resonate with me. When choosing companies we work with, those qualities are the most important aspects that define character.

Trish Wheaton (Wunderman): Character is a wonderful evolution of “values,” which help you palpably feel what an organization is about. Of course, you can say anything about who you are or what your values are, but how you behave with your people, your customers, society, and the environment have always embodied the character of any organization I've interacted with.

One such company that comes to mind is L.L.Bean, which is not a client of mine. They are authentic and have lived that authenticity and customer service for years.

Timothy McClimon (American Express): Character is who you are, but it's also where you have been and where you are going. The history and culture of your organization is important in defining character, but a word I always think about is integrity, which is really consistency of action. That consistency builds your character and that, in turn, builds trust in your employees, customers, and stakeholders.

Ginger Hardage (Southwest Airlines): Our philosophy has always been about building the brand from the inside out. As such, an organization's character is manifested in its employees.

Differentiating factors
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How can an organization's character be communicated in a manner that truly separates it from competing entities?

McClimon (AMEX): We've built our business on the concept of service. It is the only thing we have that really differentiates us from our competitors – how we serve our customers and communities. We've put a stake in the ground to say, “If you call American Express, the person who picks up the phone will be able – and is empowered – to deal with your issue, get you where you want to go, and take care of you. Nobody has to use American Express. Our reputation of serving our customers and communities is the reason they do. It's what we base our business on.

Kane (Aflac): We're different from our competitors in how we pay clients. Our goal is to pay every claim. If there is a way to pay the claim legally, we will. It's worked very well for us on a word-of-mouth basis. It's also proved to be a competitive advantage. A core value of Aflac's character is that all our people understand that the data they have on the screen in front of them represents a real person with real needs. Our employees know their job is to help those people get their money as quickly as possible. They are counting on us.

In truth, I repeatedly get told about how nice our people are, how fast they do things, and how effective they are at facilitating action if needed. Those actions of our employees clearly differentiate us.

Baum (Brooklyn Nets): We have 17,000 to 19,000 clients a night at Barclays Center for a variety of events. Customer service is critical for us, so we hired Disney Institute to train all our employees who interact with consumers in any way, from those who greet guests when they enter the arena to the CEO, CMO, and myself.

We also intentionally hired a good percentage of our workforce from Brooklyn. That “pride factor” has gotten employees excited, too. You might not think about that for an events venue, but customer service has quickly become a signature at the building.

Hardage (Southwest): Not everyone loves the airline industry, but we really make a concerted effort to be the exception. Our stock symbol, for example, is LUV and that's how we lead. It starts with our employees. We believe in the circular correlation – take care of your employees, they'll take care of customers, and shareholders will be served. But it has to be a complete cycle that isn't broken at any point.

We have also kept that top of mind as we've spent a lot of time recently refocusing on our purpose as an airline, which is to connect people to what's important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low cost air travel. Friendly goes to the issue of customer service. Reliability underscores the fact we serve a hundred million customers every year and we want them to be able to count on us to get them there safely. We also believe our airline carries the most passengers in the US because of our low-cost value proposition.

Roth (Landor): The common thread in all the examples we just heard is the customer experience. That truly is a differentiator and it makes perfect sense that all these brands spend so much time thinking about it and making sure their employees live up to it.

Baum (Brooklyn Nets): In collecting research on people's sentiments after they leave our arena, we've found genuine surprise and appreciation for our customer service because many patrons aren't used to it. They don't feel most arenas have devoted much attention to it. It seems so simple, but it's proved to be a real differentiator for us.

Weitz (H+K): It's interesting listening to each person describe a brand promise in defining their organization's character. The challenge is how to take what you do well in a brand context and extend it through the other parts of what defines character. You need to take the things that make you operationally excellent and extend it to your CSR, for example. We have found that as CSR has evolved, it's gone from covering the waterfront and maybe some pet projects to really aligning more clearly with what it is the company truly stands for.

Hardage (Southwest): It starts with hiring. We hire against our values, which are very unique and special to our company. We seek people with a warrior's spirit. Someone who will go that extra mile and do whatever it takes in a tough industry. We are looking for a servant's heart because we are in the customer service business first and foremost. We also want a fun-loving attitude. We don't want our employees to take themselves too seriously because they should lean toward the customer.

McClimon (AMEX): Picking up on Andy's comments, we've extended our focus on service to the way our employees can serve our communities. We place a high premium on employees giving to and volunteering in their communities. For instance, 75% of our employees participate in our employee giving campaign, which is way higher than most corporations. More than 50% of our employees volunteer in their communities and it's a major focus of our CSR activity. In truth, though we give money to nonprofits through our philanthropy and we have a great focus on environmental concerns, the way our employees engage in our communities is the most important aspect of what we do from a CSR standpoint.

Weitz (H+K): And that is consistent with the service focus you discussed earlier.

Kane (Aflac): With the Aflac Cancer Center, we are committed to helping families dealing with childhood cancers. It's extremely emotional, our employees volunteer to help, and we highlight those stories in many vehicles, including our employee magazine, just to remind everybody every day why we're here. People need us and we have to pay their claims as quickly as we can because look at all the other things that they're dealing with. This reinforces our values, which speaks directly to Aflac's character.

Wheaton (Wunderman): The CSR efforts mentioned by so many of my colleagues today are true differentiators, but there are still way too many brands doing a lot in the CSR arena that haven't brought that into the mix to be part of their brand story. I was in the Cannes Lions jury this past summer and was fascinated by how much traditional brands were bringing some of that forward into what they said about themselves in a marketing arena. It helps create an emotional bond with consumers.

McClimon (AMEX): Communicating what you do from a CSR standpoint is tricky, though. It's a fine line between boasting and providing information so people can perceive you as a good citizen.

Mills (EDF): Ultimately, differentiation comes through leadership. Leadership happens when it's not something you're doing at the margins, but it's integrated into your core business operations.

We have been working with companies for 25 years on environmental initiatives. From our very first partnership with McDonald's when we worked with them to cut packaging waste, it was something that produced enormous reputational benefits for them because it drove real environmental results that we could point to and credibly say, “This cut waste. This had these environmental benefits.” It also saved them a lot of money and that led to a ripple effect through their industry.

Even the private equity industry is integrating environmental considerations into their investment decisions. Now you're seeing KKR reporting $900 million in savings from those green portfolio initiatives. Private equity firms are hiring environmental social governance managers because they see this opportunity. If you could take a leadership decision on an environmental issue and have meaningful action that affects the core of your business that has a ripple effect on your entire industry. That's a real differentiator.

Q&A: A solid foundation

Prior to the roundtable, PRWeek managing editor Gideon Fidelzeid spoke to Kate James, at the time CCO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who is joining Pearson as it chief corporate affairs officer this month. She spoke about authenticity, the employee base, and various elements crucial to building and maintaining an organization's character.

Gideon Fidelzeid: Given your background both in the nonprofit and private sectors, how do you define corporate character and its importance to organizations?

Kate James: The real limitation is when you don't think about reputation, brand, and behavior together as one. When I think back to my time in the private sector, the challenge is that those capabilities often sit in different functions, which can lead to some tension.

From a Gates perspective, we didn't even really talk about “brand” until very recently. Only in the last couple of years has the organization gotten much more comfortable with this idea that it has a brand that is an incredible asset not just for the Foundation, but our partners.

Fidelzeid: The Gates Foundation has very close ties to two iconic people, Bill and Melinda Gates, as well as an iconic company, Microsoft. Has this unavoidable link proven a challenge, a benefit, or maybe both to your efforts to build the character of the organization?

James: Clearly having Bill and Melinda is a huge benefit. They are both unique in their incredible convening power and ability to amplify and put a spotlight on development issues that aren't always front and center from the news-agenda perspective.

As for Microsoft, it's an incredible brand that has been very helpful to the Foundation. It is obviously seen as an innovative leader and it helps reinforce the organization's credibility in that space.

Does it have some limitations? Sure, particularly in markets where the Foundation is less well known. In such regions, a lot of work must be put in to make sure the organization is not defined in a vacuum. It is a challenge to clearly communicate what the Foundation stands for.

Fidelzeid: There are many external factors that can have a huge impact on character, specifically missteps taken by entities with which an organization partners. What is your approach when a partner suffers character damage that could impact the organization you represent?

James: Our first thought is to focus back on the progress that's been made on whatever issue it might be. At the moment, it's a pretty tough environment. We really can't have people take their eye off the ball or have any excuse not to continue to make investments in the Foundation's efforts.

I also cite the example of The Global Fund, a partner that is the biggest organization in terms of the fight against malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis. It gives out a huge amount of money every year – and a lot of that is taxpayer money. It has come up against criticism because of a widespread view that not all the money is getting to the people who need it on the ground. In truth, that's a nonprofit sector-wide challenge. Furthermore, some of the markets in which we operate have high levels of corruption. They don't have sophisticated government systems, so there are real challenges.

This is where transparency is so crucial, particularly when it comes to communicating about where money is going. That's all about character and building trust. And it's something the Foundation must focus on, both in terms of itself and its partners.

Fidelzeid: Your background includes senior-level stints at some key financial companies. Let's focus on the banking industry – one that has had serious recent issues with reputation, brand, and behavior. The public trust is quite low. A broad group of stakeholders is very skeptical. Given that environment, how would you go about building or rebuilding the character of any organization in that sector?

James: Reputations take a long time to build. So does character. However, they are very easily lost – and once lost, it's very difficult to rebuild. The financial services sector is facing that exact challenge now. Five or so years out of the major financial crisis of 2008 and perceptions remain incredibly negative.

Any efforts on this front must begin with the employee base. However, in the case of a major financial company such as, say, Citigroup [where James held a senior communications role], you're talking about 100,000 employees. That is 100,000 potential ambassadors – and an awful lot of those people are sitting in the retail business. They're front line. Customers interface with them every day. That makes them a massively powerful tool for reshaping and shifting the positioning of your company's character. If they aren't motivated and aren't convinced in the organization's mission, you might as well pack up and go.

Fidelzeid: Another word that comes up often in discussion about character is authenticity. What does authentic behavior truly mean for an organization and how does it manifest itself in reality?

James: It comes down to the organization being really clear on what its core values are. Perhaps one of my biggest lessons on this came during my time at Standard Chartered Bank.

At one point in the ‘90s, it was known as a banana skin bank. It then had a massive turnaround that can be credited to some really smart management. There was huge growth in emerging markets that helped, of course, but the bank put a major investment in building the culture of the organization, which is a key part of character. They became very clear on what their values were and what they expected in that regard. There were even some high-profile people brought in who made millions for the bank, but were still let go within a couple of months because they didn't exemplify the organization's values.

Such decisions have a huge impact on the entire company. It also underscores how relentless you must be in determining the type of organization you want to be and then ensure your core values are crystal clear. It's also smart to keep it simple as to what behaviors need to be in order to align with those values.

Fidelzeid: Earlier this year, [Gates Foundation global brand and innovation director] Tom Scott was on a panel in Cannes about brand ego. He said, “We have access to the most amazing stories in the world. We are not telling them well. If we can find that mix between rational and emotional on the creative side, we can save more lives and do more things.” Please discuss the role of storytelling in the “character” equation.

James: Tom joined the Gates Foundation from Diageo. He's not the usual person the organization looks to recruit, but his background ties directly into brand and marketing.

A lot of people at the Foundation are data geeks, which is a real strength because you need to be able to demonstrate the evidence of your efforts. You must be able to show progress to make a convincing case as to why people should make the investment in development. However, we miss a major element if we don't also carry the emotional engagement.

Look at all the really effective consumer campaigns. Ultimately, they are not just selling a product. They're selling something deeper. They're selling an emotion. The Foundation hasn't been quite as good at doing that. In truth, the nonprofit sector has not been quite as good at storytelling when it comes to progress made.

When it comes to fundraising, the sector does very well in telling stories that pull at heartstrings. Where the Foundation – and the entire nonprofit sector – need to improve is in telling stories that enable people to follow a project all the way through. That will help any organization sustain and maintain engagement and make that emotional connection even stronger. Data is incredibly effective on so many levels, but stories from the field will create that emotional connection – and that is a huge part of the character equation.

Staying up to speed
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
With social and digital media, the speed with which information reaches all stakeholders has a huge effect on how people gather intelligence and form opinions. How has this impacted your efforts to protect and promote your organization's character?

Mills (EDF): When we work in partnership with a company, we take no money from them. As such, the results are in the public domain and we broadcast those as widely as possible so that we can affect not just that company, but the whole industry, the whole system.

Social media and networks are also a tool for driving innovation, which is something we really focus on with our EDF Climate Corps. We place specially trained graduate students in organizations to drive efficiency improvements and strategic energy management in ways that reduce carbon emissions and also save the company money. Having worked with hundreds of organizations, we've learned there are innovations happening all over. Our challenge is to bring the really good ideas to the surface and connect people so that we can drive innovation rapidly through the system and make change happen faster and go farther than we ever could do on our own.

Hardage (Southwest): Digital and social has been an avenue for problem solving and, more than anything, it has been a great vehicle for storytelling and engaging customers. We now have 4 million Facebook fans and almost 1.5 million followers on Twitter. It's fully integrated into the way we do business now. We have a specific team devoted to just solving customer problems.

In fact, our digital and social didn't start in customer relations, but rather in communications. We now have a partner team in marketing and a partner team in customer relations where they are actively solving problems for our customers. However, it's also a wonderful way to expand our brand, engage directly, and tell those stories. Moreover, the voice of those stories belongs to our employees, who are actually our representatives on all of our social channels.

Weitz (H+K): Social and digital raises the stakes in terms of how brands or reputations are projected to the market. Whereas it was largely one way, now it's two ways. Digital and social also heighten the scrutiny because people want to fact check everything said about an organization and they want to understand if any entity is actually doing what they say they are. People no longer want to evaluate you based on your brand promise alone. They want more.

McClimon (AMEX): It's actually multiple ways, not even two ways. When a customer says something through social media about us, other customers will respond. We facilitate the discussion, but we don't actually have to participate in it at every turn.

Baum (Brooklyn Nets): Between emails, tweets, and the like we keep people fully informed about how to get to an event, the time it starts, and any other relevant details they would need to get into the arena. Once there, we use the various social channels to tell people what to look for. However, there are other ways we use it.

When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, the Nets' first-ever regular-season game in Brooklyn had to be postponed. It was the first professional game in any sport that was going to take place in Brooklyn in 50-plus years – and it was against the New York Knicks. Of course, there were much bigger issues taking place than a game and there was a lot of dialogue we had to navigate to inform people about when our first game would be played.

We put together a team that included the arena's transportation director to let people know when the first game would be and how to get there – including letting them know that because there were no subways, which is how 70% of our fans get to the game, we were chartering busses for them. We were very detailed in our messages on all channels and it proved to be a great way to instill trust with the public that this is how we were going to operate. The impact was immediate and the goodwill lasted.

We are also very active in replying to tweets, emails, and social media comments. It's rare for a big company to do that, but we've found our fans appreciate it because it's unexpected.

Kane (Aflac): Where digital is really interesting to us is in social listening. We've learned a lot. We are coming up with product innovations based on hearing from people about what they want – things our actuaries sitting in their office wouldn't have necessarily thought about.

Hardage (Southwest): We are jumping in now with an official listening center. The next phase of that is to help us get faster reactions so we can react quickly, solve problems, and send direct messaging through that channel.

Wheaton (Wunderman): Social media can really be a force for good. In this age of transparency, that's how brands get built because you can't hide.  It really does facilitate change in a very positive way in companies.

Roth (Landor): Taken a step further, we would probably not be having this conversation but for social media. The transparency factor is the single most important part of all of this because you can't hide. Social media has forced companies to really be true to their word, to maybe stand out as a result of it, and to codify it perhaps a little better. I truly see a direct link to the importance of CSR as a corporate initiative or being part of a corporate culture or “character” and the Internet.

Getting talent on board
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
How can an organization get every employee to truly embody its character?

Hardage (Southwest): We're so passionate about the impact employees can have. They shape our character. They shape our organization. You cannot begin to have a clear character unless you are hiring against your values and then reiterating those values and your purpose every step of the way so that it is clearly visible in the workplace. Our CEO, for example, highlights employees who live our values in his weekly update. We'll feature them in the employee magazine and honor them at an awards banquet. Reinforcing it, modeling it, and rewarding for it is critical.

McClimon (AMEX): While employees play a crucial role here, so does the board of directors. Each person on that board has a role to play in the reputation of the company and its CSR activities. AMEX has a public responsibility committee of our board that is really interested in what the company is doing from the standpoint of our reputation, as well as our service not only to our customers but our communities.

Victoria spoke about leadership before. Well, if the board, the CEO, and the senior leaders are all focused on values, reputation, and proper action, that makes a huge difference to the employee base and, in turn, how the company's character is perceived.

Mills (EDF): Many companies we've worked with have a positive feedback loop where actions get visibility throughout the organization. This is where both internal and external communications can drive further engagement. In EDF Climate Corps, for example, an organization sets a greenhouse gas reduction goal. That drives investment in efficiency, internal capacity building, and investment in projects that create success stories. These are then reported internally and externally, which keeps the cycle going. We call this “a virtuous cycle of strategic energy management.”

Wheaton (Wunderman): Research indicates that Millennials are choosing the companies at which they want to work based on an organization's value and character – and will make financial tradeoffs based on that. These issues are driving the thought process of our industry's incoming talent, so we need to be very good at communicating the company's character. In turn, this helps assure we recruit people with the core competencies and values that will enable them to embody that character.

Roth (Landor): Doing things on paper and putting plaques on a wall to identify the character of your company is akin to painting the house without fixing the structure. We try to help clients become “brand-led organizations.” To do that, it takes a real commitment from the top. Without a CEO standing behind it, it's just talk.

Baum (Brooklyn Nets): Our communications department has really become the messenger of the company – externally and internally. Focusing on the latter, we work very hard to make sure every employee has the information about every event we're going to have. They get every press release in advance. They receive every article written about us after it runs. This helps underscore the feeling that they are all working for a big-time organization and it makes them feel a key part of it. It also helps develop an interest in what the broader organization is doing beyond the department they work in.

Weitz (H+K): Earlier Hayes said we wouldn't be having this conversation if it weren't for social media. However, we also wouldn't be having this conversation if it weren't for Millennials. Their use of the Internet has changed expectations and equations.

Go to any job fair now and you'll have people asking you questions that are completely off the map in terms of what you would traditionally hear. They ask character-based questions because their relationship to their employer is like their relationship with their friends. The people for whom they work reflect on them in a way that is changing how they choose where to work, where to buy, and where to invest.

Mills (EDF): When we hear from companies about why they take environmental action, of course they talk about it being the right thing to do. They will note the business benefits of doing so. However, some of the top-line benefits they focus on include the ability to attract talent. They all want to be organizations that young people, the rising stars, want to work for. Environmental performance, which we've established to play a crucial role in character, is key to that equation.

Wheaton (Wunderman): In the last year or so, I've been speaking at many MBA schools. The interest these students have in sustainability issues is noteworthy. What really struck me, though, was how appreciative the students were of my talking to them about what a lot of corporations are doing on this front because they weren't aware of it. When you talk about transparency, telling these stories is part of it – and companies need to do a better job because there's this hugely important audience that is very receptive to just that message.

Weitz (H+K): Much like the evolution over the past decade or so in how people talk about reputation, character is going to become a word broadly discussed. Consumers' relationships with organizations are more personal than ever. People are looking to engage with the entities they buy products from, work for, or invest in. As such, we care what other people think about those organizations, which is where the definition of character really comes from.

Damage control
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
What can an organization do to significantly turn around a damaged character?

Baum (Brooklyn Nets): With a professional sports team, we deal with incidents where a player behaves poorly, makes a mistake, or uses poor judgment in some manner. You need to attack it immediately. You gather the facts, sit down with the person, and as quickly as possible decide the right course of action.

While that is an obvious strategy for any company, there are some unique situations we face. When we opened the Barclays Center last year, we didn't have toilet paper in one of the bathrooms on the first day. It was written about in the New York Post. That just accentuates how we have to pay attention to every detail because everyone else is. It also underscores the need to respond immediately and honestly. And that directly ties into our character of being accessible, truthful, and transparent.

McClimon (AMEX): I harken back to an essay from science-fiction writer William Gibson in which he highlighted how transparency does not equal understanding. Especially in crisis, it's not just about being transparent, but sharing your information in a manner that people will understand.

Roth (Landor): The PR doctrine when I was growing up in this industry is that you deal with the problem immediately and honestly. You say what you know and don't say what you don't know. That has only been accentuated and reverberated because of the media and social networking technology. But there isn't any magic to how you deal with changing opinions based on a crisis or any other reason.

Wheaton (Wunderman): As obvious as it might seem, it's crucial to reinforce the importance of every company having a crisis management plan in place. You'd be stunned how many organizations still don't. Without that, how can you possibly deal with a crisis effectively, let alone the character damage that could potentially come with it?

Weitz (H+K): Consistency is the key here. You can actually borrow a page from the political world in that this is the age of the constant campaign. If someone says they act differently during a crisis, they're already a step behind. If you aren't consistent from the beginning, if you don't have a North Star for how you interact with the public the moment you're questioned, you're already a moment behind the public expectation of you. That's just the reality in this day and age. We're in too dynamic of a time. You must act with what your character tells you in those moments. You can't get away with behaving differently in crisis.

Kane (Aflac): Invariably, I have 35 to 40 different scenarios that could happen. Working closely with our risk mitigation team, I learned about situations I've never considered before that could be very scary. However, we actually go through the exercise of trying to solve all those problems so that when it actually happens, I am prepared with the story to tell. I am prepared to discuss what we are proactively doing to make sure the issue to which we're responding doesn't happen again. People will forgive you if you're honest and authentic in saying that we just learned about this and here is what we're trying to do.

Aflac is an insurance company, so we deal with risk a lot. However, we work extensively with partners to identify the risks and try to solve them before they become crises.

Mills (EDF): There are some really interesting parallels I'm hearing about with character development and youth for educational outcomes and the latest literatures all about resilience and how you respond to adversity. It's not about making adversity go away.

The same is true in the corporate realm around social and environmental issues. We work with businesses. Every business has an environmental impact. Nobody's perfect. So it's not about perfection. It's about how can you get ahead on the issues that are core to your business and respond when there's something that doesn't go the way you want it to.

People look at data points and create a trend in their mind. So when you have had an action that is not consistent with your values or with your character, how can you supplant that with new actions that are meaningful that will move that trend in a positive direction?

Best for business
Fidelzeid (PRWeek):
Can character be incorporated into the way an entity actually conducts business? Can it have a tangible impact on an organization's ultimate goals – bottom-line and otherwise?

Kane (Aflac): Sales isn't really a barometer I go by, but the well-documented incident we had with [former voice of the iconic duck] Gilbert Gottfried and his offensive tweets about the Japanese tsunami is very relevant to this discussion. Our core corporate character enabled us to make a decision on the situation very quickly.

As we were moving the conversation up to the CEO, I was able to have my team get the press release ready because I knew how this would end. What [Gottfried] did crossed the line and action was going to be taken. We all knew it and we were all able to prepare for what came next even before the decision was made, which didn't take very long.

Roth (Landor): I'd forgotten all about that incident, which speaks to how well and immediately it was handled.

McClimon (AMEX): Our CEO Ken Chenault's primary objective is for American Express to be considered the world's best service brand – and that really drives everything the company does. From the development of products or services to the way we operate from a CSR standpoint to how our employees act, everything is done with the consideration of whether or not it is best serving our customers or communities. Will it positively impact our reputation as a service brand? That question, which is core to our character, is constantly asked inside the company.

While that can be hard to measure operationally, it does come to light on lists such as Fortune's Most Admired Companies and other Best Places To Work compilations. Of most relevance, our goal to be the best service brand, the importance of that to our CEO, and our understanding that it is a differentiating factor from other companies around the world really plays a huge role in driving how we develop products and services.

Hardage (Southwest): We demonstrate how character impacts the way we conduct our business through our One Report, which is a combination of our annual report and our social responsibilities. It's all about people, performance, and planet. We actually report on key indicators in all those categories. We are as transparent as possible in telling our story about how our character does impact our business through that combination of our annual report and the One Report focused on those three sectors.

Weitz (H+K): Increasingly, character will begin to break more ties when consumers make decisions. It goes back to the Millennial discussion we were having earlier. All things being equal with price and product attributes, people today prefer to buy from a company with character. A survey we just conducted revealed that 70% of respondents feel that way.

We're also going to start seeing – as we have in some sectors already – people willing to pay a premium to associate themselves with a company that has character, whether it be decisions about purchases or employment. It matters and that is how it affects the bottom line.

Wheaton (Wunderman): Recent research suggests there is a new group of consumers, particular in emerging markets, with high expectations of companies to be part of solving some social and environmental issues. These people will reward those organizations with their business. It's not a niche “green” mentality. These are people who like to shop and they want the companies they do business with to display a good social conscience. Frankly, character is table stakes and it's not going away.

Baum (Brooklyn Nets): For us it's pretty simple. If you don't like what we stand for, you won't buy tickets or our merchandise. If you're another company, you won't become a sponsor. For us, though, the way we treat the media and our accessibility is a differentiator that highlights how our character impacts the way we operate.

Every time the media writes a story about us that's good, we write a handwritten note to thank them. Even if we see a particularly good story not about us, we'll call them to acknowledge it. The media is so crucial to our business and we believe those actions reflect our character and, as such, must be part of how we conduct matters.

The community of Brooklyn is also crucial to us, particularly as we recently moved here. We did not want the local community to feel as if we automatically expected them to come to us. We launched a major community outreach program to ensure everyone understood how important it was to us to be a part of Brooklyn. It all comes back to your organization's character, which is manifested very much in how we conduct business on all fronts.

Mills (EDF): When we work with companies to improve environmental performances, it's all about the results, such as the billions of dollars in energy savings we've identified through EDF Climate Corps or the 20 million metric ton greenhouse gas reduction goal that Walmart took in partnership with us. Those real results are what it's all about. We're not interested in change at the margins and no company that's serious about this should be either. Authentic leadership, or character, means integrating environmental considerations into your core business operations and creating results that can transform entire industries.

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